This post is an old version. My philosophy of education has been revised.
Below is an excerpt from my final analytical paper for the class Language, Power, and Democracy. The prompt asked us to examine our social location and to formulate a philosophy of education based on it. I am including only the latter section below (as the former section is a bit personal).
While this was what I ended up submitting this morning, I recognize that this process is just beginning. This is the first cut of my philosophy of education, what I believe as I am preparing to enter the profession. I have no doubt that these ideas will change and grow over time.
Those of you who read my blog regularly may recognize passages taken wholesale from previous posts (Why Learn Physics? and Scientific Literacy as Social Justice in particular).
Comments and discussion welcome.
My philosophy of education is informed by my social location and beliefs towards the goal of establishing a democratic classroom through scientific literacy. This goal is difficult to address without first defining what I mean by democracy, and along with it, my sense of democracy’s role and legitimacy in human life. In the interest of focusing on the primary question of a philosophy of education I will defer to John Dewey, who simultaneously sums up my conception of democracy and places education in the context of democracy in the same passage of Democracy and Education:
“If democracy has a moral and ideal meaning, it is that a social return be demanded from all and that opportunity for development of distinctive capacities be afforded all. The separation of these aims in education is fatal to democracy” (Dewey 2004, p 117).
Contained within Dewey’s assertion is that true democracy is not self-sustaining, nor is it separable from the moral and ideological character of its citizens. To the contrary, he implies that a stable democracy is explicitly contingent upon the existence of equitable development of individual capacity and the parallel development of social consciousness in all citizens. If rule is to be of, by, and for the people, then fulfilling the promise of a free, just, and enlightened state depends on the existence of an independent, critical, and socially conscious electorate made up equitably of all peoples within the state’s domain. And in expressly laying the expectation of social return upon the citizens of a democracy, it is necessary that the opportunity to develop the distinctive capacities of each individual be made equitably accessible to all; otherwise, there is no justice in expecting these capacities to exist in all citizens, nor does it follow that they could be then exhorted to service on behalf of one’s community and fellow human beings.
I further interpret Dewey’s statement to reinforce a logically-subsequent assertion: that it is explicitly the function and proper aim of the public education system within a democracy to cultivate these two qualities in its future citizens. Accepting this premise, the goal of education then becomes twofold: firstly, to develop the distinctive capabilities of every individual who is expected to participate in the democracy, and secondly, to instill a sense of social awareness and community action that will motivate the application of these distinctive capacities towards the betterment of our shared human condition in the world.
I will consider the aim of developing individual distinctive capacity first, as well as its implications for the role of the education system and the educator. A student who graduates from the public education system in the possession of developed capacities may be said to have acquired agency – the means and self-knowledge necessary to interpret the world on one’s own terms and to act upon it with intention. However, it stands to reason that the groups, factions, races, etc of people who are in power would, consciously or not, see it to their advantage to deny acquisition of agency to those who are perceived to threaten the existing social order. This reason alone is sufficient to subject the public education system, and any public educator acting towards this fundamental aim of education, to the epithets reserved for subversives by the dominant elite.
As Giroux (2008) so poignantly reminds us, “education is always political because it is concerned with the acquisition of agency” (transcript p 1). It should be no surprise that the education system finds itself in a paradoxical position, both politically and existentially. On the one hand, public education must be provided by the state in order to be truly public — that is, accessible by all. Yet, by virtue of the fact that it is a public institution, it is also by definition an arm of the state, which is disproportionately influenced by those with a vested interest in maintaining their dominant position in the hierarchy of society. Truly public education in the context of a democracy cannot (and should not) evade this conflict; the political element is unavoidable for any self-aware public educator acting in good conscience. Education, in spite of – and because of – its immense capacity for liberation and empowerment of all people towards the ideal of our common humanity, is subject to the pervasive influence of the political machinations of those in power at every level.
Within the education system, face to face with the individual student, is the public educator who finds him or herself in the position of being the human interface between the institution and the hierarchies that it represents on one side, and the moral imperative for cultivation and liberation of the student on the other. De los Reyes and Gozemba (2002) provide the blueprint for how educators may use this unique position in the matrices of power to pave the way toward democratic liberation for all students:
“Teachers with a passion for democracy play the central role in pockets of hope. Their commitment to sharing power and engaging themselves and their students in the ‘practice of freedom’ transforms their educational projects from the all too common power-over paradigm to a power-with experience” (p 19).
The educator is the linchpin, the key link, the daily human contact that mediates ideas about the extent, limits, and legitimacy of power between the greater society and the students’ own growing understanding of themselves and the world. The secret to doing so well, according to De los Reyes and Gozemba (and with whom I agree), is for teachers to deliberately share the power of their unique position with their students in the service of developing their distinctive individual capacities as human beings.
Towards what end is this liberating power shared and applied? This question requires an exploration of the importance of expecting a social return from all in a stable democracy. A fair expectation of reasoned and moral civic engagement by all citizens is certainly predicated upon equity of access to the development of individual agency. But without explicit cultivation of the sense of moral purpose and duty to the common weal, democracy devolves into a mere collection of individual bubbles of social-libertarian, consumerist nihilism — in which short-term interests and instant personal gratification rule and any issue which does not directly affect an individual may be dismissed in a socially legitimized way. Such a condition leads to the worst possible manifestation of democracy, a state which Benjamin Franklin wryly described as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” But, not to leave our general system of government without redemption, he went on to add: “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” I think that this distinction is important, especially in an age for which democracy and liberty often seem to be used synonymously. Democracy does not explicitly require liberty – but it is a hollow democracy indeed without liberty.
Here I am forced to make a rather abstract chain of connections in order to maintain the logical integrity of my primary argument. I will attempt to connect the necessity of liberty in a democracy to the necessity of a proper scientific education in the individual, a task for which I am at a loss as to how it may be accomplished without resort to metaphysics. I assert, without detailed explication, that I believe Immanuel Kant’s Third Conflict of Transcendental Ideas solidly establishes that freedom of mind is the only form in which the idea of liberty meets the minimum criteria of ontological self-consistency (Kant 2007). Thus, in order to continue in the vein of pursuing that which ensures liberty as the tempering ingredient of democracy, I must accept that the kind of freedom which would best serve the aims that I have accepted for education and democratic classrooms is freedom of mind. Bloom (1987) points the way to what this means existentially:
“Freedom of mind requires not only, not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside” (p 249).
And how to promote the proliferation of alternate possibilities for explaining what is outside of us? As the final step in this metaphysical bridge, I posit that the primary means by which we as humans have explored and tested the viability of alternative ideas and new possibilities about the world and our place in it is, in fact, science. Science, in forcing us to constantly evaluate and reevaluate our existential position as human beings, is a constant reminder that there is an “outside”, a beyond, an unknown in which we are immersed and towards which we are bound. In other words, science, properly wielded, is freedom of mind. And with that step, hopefully, I find myself on firmer academic footing, now in the realm of exploring what the role of science education should be in the context of my goal of establishing a democratic classroom.
In a modern republic – in which nearly all aspects of ideas and power are governed by, transmitted through, mediated with, and built on science and technology – there can be no true agency without scientific literacy. Even over a century ago, Dewey foresaw this role for science in the broader context of democratic education when he wrote that “the function which science has to perform in the curriculum is that which it has performed for the race – emancipation” (Dewey 2004, p 221). Science is both a system of knowledge production and a mindset, a perspective on the world. It is the idea that the universe is knowable, and that our lives can be made better through the deliberate construction of a world that is friendly our shared needs and aspirations. It is the idea that the general may be deduced from the particular – and conversely that specific phenomena are the result of universal and coherent structures which we can both comprehend and extend. Certainly, our perception as human beings is limited, and the social consequences of scientific discoveries are subject to social and political influences. But this only reinforces the idea that science needs to not only be taught as a means of empowerment, but also that the social and moral questions that surround the use and abuse of scientific argument are made clear to students, who are, after all, the developing citizens of our shared democracy.
This desired end state, in which the developing citizen graduates from high school with knowledge of both scientific content and context, is what I mean by the term scientific literacy. Because many of the respected, high-demand, and skilled professions of the modern world reside in science, engineering, and technology, inequity in opportunity to pursue these professions results in a much wider social disparity beyond just who does or does not do well in a science classroom. Further, while science is always ostensibly used to help people, it is a tool that can also be wielded for harmful, destructive, or manipulative purposes. Science which is politicized suffers from accusations of manipulative agendas, and the science which touches on contemporary social issues is often labeled as “controversial” or “disputed” by those whose world-view or livelihood is threatened. It is easy to see how the science classroom is politically vulnerable to interests that would reduce it to a safe (and nicely quantifiable) diet of equations, proofs, and rote memorization – all of which symbolize what Freire (2000) called the banking model of education, and which run counter to a democratic and liberating concept of scientific literacy.
The uncomfortable truth is that science cannot ever be de-politicized or de-socialized. Science is always conducted toward some end, and these ends are driven (and funded) based on socio-political objectives and needs. To isolate science from the other disciplines and focus purely on its quantitative aspects is to strip science of its essential humanity, and relegate it to the safe sterility of some abstract laboratory in the public imagination. This dehumanization of the field in effect denies students the civic empowerment of being scientifically literate citizens, regardless of whether or not they go on to become scientists or engineers in their careers. And further, we must recall that there is a faction within society that would be quite happy if equitable access to this form of civic empowerment were denied.
Though scientific literacy is the key to the development of certain important distinctive capacities (and thus the acquisition of agency), it is not enough to simply arm students with the content of science. Bloom (1987) puts it bluntly: “In general, [science] increases man’s power without increasing his virtue, hence increasing his power to do both good and evil” (p 298). If given the power of scientific reasoning, students must also be given the moral tools to make community-based judgments about their own scientific conclusions and that of others in a social context; otherwise, as Dewey warned, the result will be just as fatal to democracy as an ignorant and undeveloped citizenry.
Fortunately, Bloom also points us to the missing link: “Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science. This loss of self-consciousness is somehow connected with the banishment of poetry” (p 298). What Bloom laments throughout most of The Closing of the American Mind is the decay of holistic interconnectedness between the academic disciplines – the loss of what he calls the unity of knowledge, the idea that all disciplines, including literature and art, point us in the same direction (toward a metaphysical understanding of the self and humanity), each from its own perspective and domain of inquiry. In light of this observation, I conclude that the manner in which scientific literacy can best be taught in the service of establishing democratic classrooms is one that treats science as it once was: as natural philosophy, the branch of metaphysics – the study of the self as it relates to what is – that can be empirically tested against nature.
Restoring the exploration of science in its original context as natural philosophy reintroduces the element most precious to Freire’s (2000) problem-posing model of education back into science: the quest for an individual sense of place. A problem-posing science classroom, a liberated science classroom, a democratic science classroom can provide: a perspective that the universe is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating arena full of challenge and discovery — and that therefore, on that principle alone, it is worthy of study and exploration; an understanding of the rigorous tools of scientific analysis and inquiry that have allowed us as a species to discard illusions and improve our standard of living; further, a realization that they must use these tools daily as citizens in the modern world as a defense against manipulation by interests who would misrepresent science for self-serving ends; and lastly, a cohesive story of our human quest for truth — the part that has been grounded in empiricism and fueled by curiosity — which has brought us to our present understanding of what we are, where we came from, and where we are going. This perspective is that which can provide the moral and social context needed to bridge the content of science with the social return that we must expect from citizens in a true democracy.
The train of logic has been thus: Firstly, democracy depends on both the development of distinctive capacities in all people and the cultivation of their moral context in providing a social return to the common good. It is manifestly the role of the public education system to ensure that these aims are met in all students as developing participants in a true and just democracy. The educator, as the interface between the student and the matrices of power in society, has the moral imperative to act toward the liberation of each and every student through the implementation of problem-posing education, resulting in the sharing of power and the acquisition of agency by students. It is observed that, owning to the pervasive role of science and technology in the present condition of the species, it is impossible to have true human agency in a modern context without scientific literacy. Further, the scientific mindset itself is one that inherently promotes intellectual emancipation. Thus, the method by which science in the curriculum can be pressed into the service of establishing democratic classrooms (in the sense of Dewey and Freire) is through deliberate action by the public science educator to ensure the acquisition of moral scientific literacy by all students.
The above philosophic argument has at its base a certain idea of what democracy is and what our relationship to each other and the world should be as humans in the context of a democracy. This idea is rooted in my social location as the child of South Asian immigrants, as well my individual reaction to the dissonance of identity resulting from recognition of the consequences of my social location. In an increasingly secularized and post-modernist world, a moral argument for how and why I believe science should be taught runs the risk of being perceived as archaic or academically illegitimate. But as Nieto (2003) reminds us, teaching in any holistic sense is inseparable from who we are as people. What I have chosen to believe about the moral nature of the world and human action within it, including the ontological place of the scientific perspective in promoting freedom of mind, leads me inexorably towards placing my philosophy of education in the service of emancipation and in the framework of natural philosophy.
That eminent prophet of science, Carl Sagan, wrote in The Demon-Haunted World:
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual” (Sagan 2006, p 29).
I can think of no better intention for a science educator than to instill Sagan’s sense of awe before the universe in every student – indeed, I believe it is the key to unlocking their self-actualization, and a necessary component of their acquisition of agency as the rising citizens of an enlightened democracy.
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De los Reyes, E. and Gozemba, P.A. (2002). Introduction: Education as the Practice of Freedom. In Pockets of Hope: How Students and Teachers Change the World. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Ch 2, pp 71-86. (Originally published in 1967).
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